Athens, 2400 years ago. It’s a compact place:
only about a quarter of a million people live here. There are fine baths, theatres, temples,
shopping arcades and gymnasiums It’s warm for more than half the year. This is also home to the world’s first true
– and probably greatest – philosopher: Plato Born into a prominent and wealthy family in the city, Plato devoted his life to one goal:
helping people to reach a state of what he termed: εὐδαιμονία (Eudaimonia) or fulfilment. Plato is often confused with Socrates Socrates was an older friend,
who taught Plato a lot but didn’t write any books. Plato wrote lots of them: 36, all
dialogues: beautifully crafted scripts of imaginary discussions in which Socrates is
always allocated a starring role – among them: The Republic
The Symposium The Laws
The Meno and
The Apology Plato had four big ideas for making life more
fulfilled. First big idea: Think more We rarely give ourselves time to think carefully
and logically about our lives and how to live them. Sometimes we just go along with what the the
Greeks called ‘doxa’: ‘popular opinions’. In the the 36 books he wrote, Plato showed
this ‘common-sense’ to be riddled with errors, prejudice and superstition. Fame is great Follow your heart Money is the key to a good life The problem is, popular opinions edge us towards
the wrong values, careers and relationships. Plato’s answer is ‘Know yourself.’ It means doing a special kind of therapy,
philosophy: Subjecting your ideas to examination rather
than acting on impulse. If you strengthen your self-knowledge, you
don’t get so pulled around by feelings. Plato compared the role of our feelings to
being dragged dangerously along by a group of wild horses. In honor of his mentor and friend, Socrates,
this kind of examination is called a Socratic discussion. You can have it with yourself
or ideally, with another person who isn’t trying to catch you out but wants to help
you clarify your own ideas. Second Big idea: Let your lover change you. That sounds weird, if you think that love
means finding someone who wants you just the way you are. In The Symposium , Plato’s play about a
dinner party where a group of friends drink too much and get talking about love, sex and relationships, Plato says:
“True love is admiration.” In other words, the person you need to get
together with should have very good qualities … which you yourself lack. Let’s say, they should be really brave Or organised. Or warm and sincere By getting close to this person, you can become
a little like they are. The right person for us helps us grow to our
full potential. For Plato, in a good relationship, a couple
shouldn’t love each other exactly as they are right now. They should be committed to educating each
other – and to enduring the stormy passages this inevitably involves. Each person should want to seduce the other
into becoming a better version of themselves. Three: decode the message of beauty. Everyone – pretty much – likes beautiful
things Plato was the first to
ask why do we like them? He found a fascinating reason: Beautiful objects are whispering important
truths to us about the good life … We find things beautiful when we unconsciously
sense in them qualities we need but are missing in our lives. gentleness harmony balance peace strength Beautiful objects therefore have a really
important function. They help to educate our souls. Ugliness is a serious matter too. it parades
dangerous and damaged characteristics in front of us. It makes it harder to be wise, kind
and calm. Plato sees art as therapeutic: it is the duty
of poets and painters (and nowadays, novelists, television producers and designers) to help
us live good lives. Four: Reform society. Plato spent a lot of time thinking how the
government and society should ideally be. He was the world’s first utopia thinker. In this, he was inspired by Athens’s great
rival: Sparta. This was a city-sized machine for turning
out great soldiers Everything the Spartans did – how they raised
their children, how their economy was organised, whom they admired, how they had sex, what
they ate – was tailored to that one goal. And Sparta was hugely successful, from a military
point of view. But that wasn’t Plato’s concern. He wanted
to know: how could a society get better at producing not military power but fulfilled
people? In his book, The Republic, Plato identifies
a number of changes that should be made: Athenian society was very focused on the rich,
like the louche aristocrat Alcibiades, and sports celebrities, like the boxer Milo of
Croton. Plato wasn’t impressed: it really matters
who we admire, because celebrities influence our outlook, ideas and conduct. And bad heroes
give glamour to flaws of character. Plato therefore wanted to give Athens new
celebrities, replacing the current crop with ideally wise and good people he called Guardians models for everyone’s good development. These people would be distinguished by their record of
public service, their modesty and simple habits, their dislike of the limelight and their wide
and deep experience. They would be the most honored and admired people in society. He also wanted to end democracy in Athens.
He wasn’t crazy. He just observed how few people think properly before they vote and
therefore we get very substandard rulers. He didn’t want to replace democracy with
horrid dictatorship; but wanted to prevent people from voting until
they had started to think rationally. Until they had become philosophers. Otherwise, government
would just be a kind of mob rule [back to To help the process, Plato started a school,
The Academy, in Athens, which lasted a good 300 years. There, pupils learnt not just maths
and spelling, but also how to be good and kind. His ultimate goal was that politicians should
become philosophers: ‘The world will not be right,’ he said, ‘until kings become
philosophers or philosophers kings.’ [show Hollande, Merkel, Cameron all trooping into
a uni- then coming out as philosophers] Plato’s ideas remain deeply provocative
and fascinating. What unites them is their ambition and their idealism. He wanted philosophy
to be a tool to help us change the world. We should continue to be inspired by his example.


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